Folk horror films are increasing in popularity, with movies like The Witch appealing to audiences who might not normally go to a typical horror film. Irish filmmaker Lorcan Finnegan’s feature debut, WITHOUT NAME, blurs genre lines even more, dipping into the genres of folk horror, art house, and experimental film.
Land surveyor Eric (Alan McKenna) is dispatched into a dense section of the Irish forest to assess the land for potential development, but soon discovers that it’s not going to be a typical assignment. As it turns out, the part of the woods Eric is surveying doesn’t have an actual name, hence the film’s title. Yet the phrase “without name” goes further than that.
Eric finds a photo of Devoy, the former owner of the cabin in which he’s staying, and the old man’s piercing eyes unsettle him. Still, Devoy’s journal seems benign enough, with sketches and Ralph Waldo Emerson-style philosophical musings. According to the local residents of the area, Devoy went mad, insisting that he could hear the language of the trees.
Finnegan and cinematographer Piers McGrail (The Canal, Let Us Prey) do an incredible job showing us the as-yet-unnamed forest, avoiding horror film clichés and conjuring J.R.R. Tolkien instead. There are no cutesy anthropomorphic trees voiced by Jonathan Rhys Davies, however; the feeling evoked is that unsettling one you get from reading Tolkien’s original text about the mysterious Fangorn forest.
The way the forest in WITHOUT NAME is framed, lit, and shot is spectacular, suffused with a deeply enigmatic, surreal quality. People vanish only to reappear suddenly, perspective is distorted, light seems unnatural, equipment ceases to function properly. There is one hallucinogenic sequence that will remind viewers of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, although its purpose in WITHOUT NAME is far more primordial.
It doesn’t take long for us to realize that there is something in the forest that is speaking to Eric, although he denies it at first. As frightening as the forest may seem, it still feels more authentic than the world Eric inhabits back in the city. The verdant hues of the woods, for all their menace, are strangely soothing, while Eric’s home environment is all antiseptic blues and greys, sucking the life out the pinched faces of his wife and son.
Eric’s descent into madness (or, one could argue, sanity) might possess visual similarities to the journey undertaken by Edward Jessup in Ken Russell’s Altered States, but the narrative trajectory feels more like the ghost story of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. This gives WITHOUT NAME a bewitching vibrancy, and poses the question of nature versus nurture at its most fundamental.
The music, from Gavin O’Brien and Neil O’Connor, is acutely odd, and an excellent accompaniment to the film’s visuals, but the sound design is perhaps even more significant, as whistling winds, rattling branches, and trembling leaves take on an otherworldly and spooky quality.
WITHOUT NAME is not a cut and dry narrative, nor is it a pleasantly pastoral tale of man’s relationship to his environment. The idea that naming something gives you power over that thing is at the core of the film. The ending is cryptic, but strangely satisfying. Nature always finds a way.
WITHOUT NAME had its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday, September 12.